By Lauren Chattman
Whether you grow your own vegetables or buy them at a local farm stand, it’s tempting to let their freshness shine by cooking them as lightly as possible or not at all. Sliced tomatoes, zucchini “carpaccio,” salads, slaws, crudité — all are legitimate ways of enjoying summer’s bounty. You can feel especially virtuous while eating like this, knowing that you aren’t destroying the vitamin C in your peppers or the folate in your spinach.
And yet, too many crispy, crunchy dinners make me feel less like farm-to-table goddess Alice Waters and more like Bugs Bunny. When raw vegetable fatigue sets in, what are the best ways to soften up kale, cabbage, and carrots without ruining their fresh flavor? Here are a few ideas:
Lettuce: It took me awhile to get onboard the grilled Romaine train, but once I tried lettuce cooked over a fire I was hooked. In addition to lending great charred flavor, the grill mellows lettuce’s bitterness. Slice a few heads of sturdy lettuce (Romaine works great, but so do endive and radicchio) in half, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, and grill cut sides down over medium-high heat until the edges are crispy and the interior is just softening up. Drizzle the warm lettuce with Caesar dressing and maybe some grilled bread for a light main course.
Cabbage: Like lettuce, quartered cabbages do well on the grill. Cook as with lettuce, turning to char both cut sides of each quarter. Dress with a spicy lime and chili dressing, and sprinkle with some chopped roasted peanuts and cilantro leaves.
Kale: Raw kale is tough, so much so that many recipes actually recommend massaging the leaves to soften them up before serving. If massaging your kale makes you feel ridiculous, make kale chips instead. Strip the leaves from the stems, toss with a little olive oil and salt, and roast on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes.
Carrots: Believe it or not, some vegetables are more nutritious after cooking. When the cell walls of carrots soften during cooking, more beta carotene becomes available for us to absorb. Grilling gives them a smoky flavor that balances their sweetness. Peel and trim carrots and then cut them lengthwise. Brush them with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and grill over medium-high, covered, turning once, until they are soft and lightly charred, about 10 minutes total. Drizzle with lime juice and dust with smoked paprika just before serving.
Radishes: To tame the peppery flavor of radishes, braise them. First, cook a few slices of bacon until crisp, remove them from the pan and crumble. Then add the radishes to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until they’re browning on all sides. Add a 1/3 cup of water and a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar to the pan, cover, turn the heat to low, and continue to cook until the radishes are soft, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with bacon and a little bit of parsley and serve.
Tomatoes: Some people consider it a crime to cook summer tomatoes, when they are so naturally sweet. But I can’t resist throwing whole cherry tomatoes in a hot oven for 15 minutes, to intensify their flavor. They are great as a side dish, tossed with pasta, or in a frittata or scrambled eggs.
Corn: There may be nothing better on a hot summer day than a salad made with raw sweet corn kernels, diced tomatoes, avocado, and peppers. But when it gets chilly at night, cook the kernels with butter and milk for a fresh-tasting seasonal polenta. Plunk some of those roasted cherry tomatoes on top and you’ve got yourself a vegetarian main course. Or serve as a side dish with grilled sausages and peppers.
Fresh Corn Polenta with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
Serves 4 to 6
1 pint cherry tomatoes
¼ cup olive oil
6 sprigs fresh thyme
12 medium ears fresh corn
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 scallions, white and light green parts, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil
½ cup crumbled feta or ricotta salata
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Toss the cherry tomatoes, 1 tablespoon oil, thyme, and salt to taste on the baking sheet and bake until soft and slightly shriveled, 15 to 20 minutes.
- Husk the corn and remove silk. Slice the kernels away from the cobs. You should have about 6 cups. Place in the workbowl of a food processor and pulse 2 or 3 times to coarsely grind.
- Heat the olive oil and butter in a largeskilletover medium heat. Add scallions and garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Stir in corn, milk, and salt to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until thick and creamy, about 30 minutes. Stir in the basil.
- Spoon the polenta into shallow bowls. Top with the roasted tomatoes. Sprinkle with cheese. Serve immediately.